It’s slickly packaged, looks good in widescreen and toplines Cate Blanchett, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer and helmer Joel Schumacher (reunited after last year’s “Bad Company”) seem boxed in by the very recent story and by the challenge of making a driven, rather foolhardy newspaperwoman into a sympathetic figure. So they have taken an accessible, generic approach to the material, treating it as a star vehicle, with Blanchett, who’s in almost every scene, driving the pic (though in one of her most actorly and emotionally least convincing perfs). Since opening in Ireland July 11, the picture has taken a warm $2.2 million in limited release, though the first big test with non-Celts arrived with its Aug. 1 opening across Blighty.
The filmmakers’ approach could help to give the heavily promoted pic more solid legs in the U.K. than usual for Irish-themed movies, with tasty business likely in upscale and Irish areas on Stateside release this October.
“Guerin” represents the second attempt to portray the life and death of the journo, but comes no closer to the heart of its subject than the little-seen Joan Allen starrer “When the Sky Falls” three years ago. However, unlike the earlier pic, this one uses people’s real names (with the exception of a young cop).
Pic opens on June 26, 1996, as breezy Guerin (Blanchett) comes in front of a judge for the umpteenth time on a speeding charge. “We all know who you are, Miss Guerin, but that doesn’t grant you immunity,” says his lordship, conveniently summing up her fatal personality flaw. Later, while she’s boasting on the phone about how lightly the judge let her off, a motorbike pulls up and a man fires six shots into her body at point-blank range.
Flashback “two years earlier” and Guerin is a reporter for Dublin’s high-profile Sunday Independent, working the crime beat and looking for a cause. With only the barest of backgrounding in the script, Guerin finds her cause in the city’s appalling drug trade.
While Guerin is questioning some young druggies, elsewhere in the same housing project a squealer is being nailed to the floor personally by mobster Martin Cahill (Gerry O’Brien, equally chilling though physically different from Brendan Gleeson in John Boorman’s “The General”). Despite denials by her main underworld informer, John Traynor (Ciaran Hinds), Guerin reckons Cahill is behind Dublin’s drugs and — in a technique that will get her into trouble later on — simply goes to his house.
When Cahill and some of his men are gunned down, the cops are happy to let the IRA take the credit, though Guerin suspects the slayings were drug-related. Unfortunately, Traynor deliberately feeds her misleading info — that the killings were ordered by Cahill’s cross-town rival, Gerry Hutch (Alan Devine, unctuously deadly). Only later does she learn they were decreed by John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley), a psychotic mobster who wanted to trigger a Dublin gang war and sweep up the spoils.
After Guerin is shot in the leg, she goes after Gilligan (at pic’s hour mark) with a visit that goes horribly wrong. The escalating battle leads inevitably to the events of July 26, 1996, now replayed in full.
Underneath its surface twists and turns, the script by Carol Doyle (“Washington Square”) and Mary Agnes Donoghue (“Paradise,” “White Oleander”) is simplistic, with clearly defined heroes and villains and not too much local backstory to tax mainstream auds.
Even though the audience may know what’s coming, Guerin’s murder plays powerfully at a visceral level, as tautly and unflashily directed by Schumacher. The problem is identifying elsewhere with Guerin’s situation, as her character willfully antagonizes Dublin’s extremely seedy crime world and seems driven more by personal ambition than saving the city’s youth from drugs.
It’s almost academic to compare “Guerin” with the John Mackenzie-directed “When the Sky Falls,” since that film was hardly released after its 2000 Toronto fest preem (it finally cropped up on HBO in the U.S.).
But though the movies have a very different feel and look — Mackenzie’s grittier and more moderately budgeted, Schumacher’s purring along like an upscale studio picture — it’s interesting that both fail to create a sympathetic main character while managing to surround her with a menagerie of well-etched supports.
Allen came over as too brittle in the main role and looked uncomfortable. In contrast, Blanchett gives it the whole actorly enchilada, luxuriating in a very credible Dublin accent, deploying standard movie-journo body language and generally acting up a storm. This makes for entertaining moments but doesn’t make the viewer warm to her much more.
The supporting perfs provide the real drama, especially Hinds’ excellent turn as the outwardly macho but inwardly broken Traynor, and McSorley’s simmering portrayal of the psychotic Gilligan. Other roles are just bits, with Brenda Fricker in briefly as Guerin’s mom, and even Schumacher’s favorite thesp, Colin Farrell, popping up in a completely unnecessary cameo as a wacky, tattooed bystander. Barry Barnes can do little with the blandly written role of Guerin’s supportive husband.
Widescreen lensing by Brendan Galvin (“Behind Enemy Lines”) is unshowy but smoothly tooled, with vibrant color processing — from vivid reds to stygian blacks — giving extra resonance to production designer Nathan Crowley and costume designer Joan Bergin’s lived-in sets and costumes.
Harry Gregson-Williams’ supportive score obligingly slips into Celtic mode whenever called for, and a song sung over the end roller by Sinead O’Connor completes the ethnic packaging.
In a labored attempt to end on an upbeat note, pic features an extended coda that details the fates of participants and the salutary effects of Guerin’s murder on the Irish legal system.